Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. That’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept that there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with baited breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact that we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense that they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess that I didn’t much care that any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) that we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling that the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In that regard, there’s nothing lacking and if that’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say that you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility that lifts entertainment above the mediocre and allows it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deux ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

220px-Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterThis was yet another pleasant surprise. Just when I think I’ve finally washed by hands of superhero movies the cineplexes are blessed by two pictures like Wonder Woman and then Spiderman: Homecoming. And they couldn’t be more different. Still, as much as Wonder Woman was invested in its heroine, you get the sense that the crew behind this film care some about Peter Parker too.

Peter (Tom Holland) is living the dream. He got to do battle with the Avengers and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing and he has video proof of it all. He’s expecting great things. He’s expecting to leave the drudgery of high school classes, band, and academic decathlon behind.

Except for most of the film, he is relegated to thwarting small-time crime and he never gets to fight extra-terrestrials or other unearthly beings from outer space. It’s precisely this point that suggests there’s something profound about this character without any of that added white noise.

It’s the very fact that Peter is struggling with his own identity, how to be Spiderman and keep it a secret while simultaneously trying to realize the full extent of his abilities. He’s walking a tightrope because he wants to tell his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and he wants Mr. Stark’s right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to call him up for his next assignment so he can prove himself. And yet nothing happens like he wants. No one takes him quite as seriously as he wants. After all, he is a teenager. As some famous philosopher once noted, “with great power, comes greater responsibility.”

But Tom Holland imbues Peter with a genuine likability that lights up his performance from end to end. This guy isn’t a jerk or a moody loser. He falls somewhere in the middle, making idiotic decisions but always because he believes them to be right in that wayward teenage brain of his; he only gets distraught because in his world Spiderman is all he has. Without it he is nothing. That’s his own insecurity speaking.

In one scene that’s undoubtedly meant to be impactful and which subsequently gets referenced later, Tony Stark takes away Peter’s suit after a debacle with an ocean liner and in so many words he says that if Peter needs his suit to be someone then he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe this and the related scenes are needlessly overt in reflecting our hero’s fall and redemption but if nothing else they cast our protagonist in a positive light. He is one of us.

Another thing that constantly reminds us of this fact, has to do with the world and characters he is surrounded by. First of all, the writers do something fairly refreshing and they give him the honor of fighting a villain who is grounded on earth — a man (Michael Keaton) just trying to provide for his family. He is vengeful when the government (Tyne Daly) cancels his contract in favor of the affluent private corporation of Stark Industries. It’s a very real issue wrapped in a superhero film similar to Civil War’s antagonistic dilemma, part of what made that previous film and this one compelling.

But whereas that was a battle among friends, this picture is understandably a high school story. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing the John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldenstein writing credit not to mention the inclusion of a certain decathlon advisor (Martin Starr) making it hard not to draw up a minor Freaks & Geeks connection.

Honestly, it’s hard to put Spiderman on that level but it does begin to tease out the high school experience as Peter is forced to live a double life while chasing after Adrian Toomes and his clandestine arms operation all across town. Because just as important are his friendship with his Star Wars-loving best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), teenage crushes, parties, National Decathlon Championships, and, of course, Homecoming.

That’s the beauty of this story. It never tries to take on some epic agenda but far from settling it finds the importance in both the hero’s journey and the growth of someone in the throes of their adolescence. Peter knows that his nighttime activities are hurting his relationship with his aunt and hindering anything that could be between him and his amiable dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).

The film’s greatest twist (which I’ll consequently omit)  is a beautiful bit of storytelling because it links together Peter’s two worlds so openly. Before they were two entities crisscrossed and tied together like chords of his spider webbing. But there comes a point where they are so closely connected he can no longer keep them separate. He must face it all even if it can’t be resolved as he would like.

So as the Marvel Universe rolls ever onward this picture turns out to be a rewarding entry because in some respects it chooses to tell a smaller story. Still, that story has some lovely touches and a rich cast that more than carry our attention.

The fact that the school outcast (Zendaya) wears a Sylvia Plath t-shirt cracked me up as did a bit of shameless Star Wars product placement, not to mention Captain America fitness videos. But there’s also some sentimental nods as well, namely to Ferris Bueller and the war memorabilia in the Principal’s office honoring his relative who fought alongside Cap during WWII (played by Kenneth Choi in both films).

Michael Keaton turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as a “villain” and everybody from Marisa Tomei to Donald Glover are enjoyable in their admittedly small parts. Of course, we have the laundry list of cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gweneth Paltrow, and Stan Lee too as expected.

I won’t harp on this topic too much but it’s obvious that Spiderman is making a concerted effort to be ethnically diverse with its cast which is awesome and refreshing on so many levels. Whether they’re trying too hard with this perfect spectrum of ethnicity is not something to criticize at this point in time. Still, it does suggest that surrounding your typical characters with a lot of diverse individuals in cameos and supporting roles is good enough. Rather than forcing these smaller roles to meet public outcry, there’s a necessity for a better solution.

If the recent Hawaii Five-O pay equality news is any indication, the current state of affairs often has more to do with how the parts were initially created whether in Spiderman or Hawaii Five-O and not how they are interpreted. What might be more radical still is creating these same types of stories and standalone parts for actors who have normally been relegated. I would love to see a Donald Glover movie (on top of Community of course), a Kenneth Choi movie, or even a Jacob Batalon movie. But while we wait, go enjoy Jon Watt’s film for all it’s worth without an ounce of reluctance.

4/5 Stars

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIn spite of being a jaded viewer at this point, the Russo Brothers (Arrested Development and Community) and the screenwriting duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Narnia Franchise) proved still capable when it comes to keeping the Marvel Franchise afloat and, nay, helping it to flourish like few franchises ever have.  The pair of directing and writing duos who brought us Captain America: Winter Solider were able to add another link in the armor, and Marvel has remained stalwart. There are moments of misguided drama, times when the fight sequences become monotonous rather than momentous, but Marvel always does well to keep their funny bone intact.

As with any superhero movie Civil War calls for a suspension of disbelief, but it also becomes a balancing act, because for any movie to truly resonate with a mass audience its characters must feel human in some way shape or form. Where their powers and superhuman abilities must be on display for all those awaiting a popcorn thriller, but still restrained enough to keep them relatable.

In this case, Captain America (Chris Evans) is swayed by the love of a friend he’s known for over 70 years. Bucky Barnes is once more in the middle of a manhunt, and yet Cap has faith in his old friend. But it’s exactly that kind of loyalty that lands him on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, our other force of nature Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) rehashes the tragic death of his parents and tough times with Pepper Potts leave him conflicted. He’s ready to concede to the United Nation’s demands to put the Avengers in check and that’s where he breaks with his former ally. When the two undisputed leaders of the Avengers become polarized that forms the dividing line between factions and the whole film becomes fascinating as the sides are slowly drawn up. As an audience, we are forced to make a choice. It’s either the true blue Steve Rogers or the wonderfully snarky Tony Stark or perhaps we watch as an impartial observer. But, nevertheless, a mental decision must be made.

And it’s not only a balancing act of super versus human qualities, but the sheer size and scope of the cast could easily be a hindrance. Equality of screen time or at least moments in the spotlight for everyone are key, and the film generally does that capably enough. Marvel revels in the callbacks and Civil War is no different. In this installment alone we have the pleasure of seeing numerous returning players sans Hulk. In fact, the most entertaining fight sequence involves everyone duking it out, and the fact that it feels almost like play fighting rather than full-fledged combat is of little consequence.

But the new additions are also noteworthy including the likes of  Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spiderman. Credit due to Tom Holland for in some ways making Peter Parker into an invariably entertaining persona, who feels different than his predecessors. There are a few others in smaller roles of note including the likes of William Hurt, Martin Freeman, and even Jim Rash.

By this point, we have long grown tired of villains rising up from outer space harnessing some unfathomable amount of power. The antagonists that are truly compelling are those who are closer to home, more realistic, and sometimes even within our own ranks. Built into this film’s title is that type of conflict, between former friends, between people who used to be close or would be on the same side given any other circumstances. But Civil War ups the ante not by getting bigger and grander necessarily. It’s the fact that it gets more personal that makes it work surprisingly well.

Daniel Bruhl is a delightful actor, and he does well to play what some might call a villain and others might simply label a pained, vengeful man. That’s oftentimes far more interesting.

It’s overstuffed with players, many who are admittedly wonderful acting talents. Its editing and cinematography is at times overly frenetic and mind-numbing. While Civil War is the expected superhero extravaganza, there are dour, more mature interludes that are difficult not to appreciate. If Marvel has not completely kept me enraptured, due to so many subsequent films, they still have me coming back and if I’m any indication, there will be many far more ardent fans than me who will truly enjoy what this film has to offer.

4/5 Stars

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac2007PosterAfter watching this film I was certainly intrigued but I thought that it was a rather slow film in many respects. However, when you think about it this film is really intriguing. One reason is that as a procedural the film utilizes this pacing to its advantage as it covers the events of the case.
Another reason is that Zodiac is based on the true events that took place in Northern California in the late 60s and early 70s. Furthermore, the culprit was never truly found even if there are a number of suspects who seem the most probable based on circumstantial evidence and testimony.

The point is we still don’t know who the Zodiac killer is even at the end of the film and this adds to the legend, mystery, and intrigue that surrounds the whole story.

Most definitely deserving of a movie adaption, director David Fincher, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo, make Zodiac work as a engaging albeit plodding procedural.

4/5 Stars